Why Pursue a PhD? Or, “Why I Need New Eyes”

I read a fantastic piece today on Fuller’s website written by Katherine Lee (a recent Fuller graduate). I found it profoundly moving, in that it encapsulated so much of why I have chosen to continue my education at a doctoral level as well as the tensions that attend such a decision.

Lee’s narrative centers around a Christopher Slatoff’s sculpture “Jesus is Nailed to the Cross”, which sits prominently outside the prayer garden across from the library on Fuller campus.

sculpture

When I visited the campus, I found it impossible to walk by the sculpture without being drawn in. (In many ways, my decision to attend Fuller specifically could be symbolized by the presence of this sculpture and other works of art throughout the campus: it signified an artistic and imaginative ethos absent at other schools.)

Lee writes of watching “outsiders” to the Fuller community walking through campus and interacting with the sculpture. She tells stories of three such outsiders: a culinary student who stopped to consider the sculpture, a woman who knelt to weave flowers around Jesus’ head, and a day laborer who stopped to touch Jesus’ feet.

I encourage you to go here and read the whole thing, and then watch Christopher Min’s short film (only 6 minutes) that was made to tell the story. The film powerfully captures some of the drudgery, isolation, and mental fatigue that can attend the academic enterprise. Given such conditions, it is easy to lose sight of God as a “Thou” and start treating him as an “It”, a subject to be studied rather than a person to be known, loved and worshipped.

In any case, here is Lee’s concluding paragraph.

“Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross” is situated between the lush, tranquil prayer garden and the clean, commanding architecture of the David Allan Hubbard Library. Though it is intentionally placed between worship and scholarship, it is not equidistant to them. It is, as it should be, decidedly closer to the garden. The “outsiders,” and their acts of worship, taught me something about my alma mater. As is often portrayed in biblical narratives, those who are considered least qualified to grasp the gospel often understand before the learned do. It is the Magi, the Syrophoenecian woman, and the Centurion who grasp the meaning of Christ more intuitively than the earnest seminarian. At graduation, I realized that the outsiders knew the primacy of worship, that it takes pausing to cross oneself, to weave flowers in his metal thorns, or to touch his feet in faith, in order to be made whole. Devotion has its many forms, and I came to Fuller because I sensed that scholarship could be one of them. But it was never meant to eclipse praise, wonder, or recognition of need. Like the sculpture, Fuller was my sacred place, my place to offer up my mind and its heartfelt questions for his glory. I came to become an outsider again.

Amen! I fear lest I lose my capacity to be stunned by the immensity of life and the depth of grace. I fear lest the good news about God’s action in Christ becomes too familiar to me. I fear lest I keep doing ministry out of memory rather than imagination. And so my hope in doctoral studies is not so much to become an expert but “to become an outsider again”.

So why am I pursuing a PhD? Because I have need of new eyes.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

-T.S. Eliot

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3 thoughts on “Why Pursue a PhD? Or, “Why I Need New Eyes”

  1. That filled brought a tightness to my own throat. One of those happy/sad kind, the kind born of closeness.

    Thank you for sharing this, Justin. And may God give you all the best things as you pursue Him in the PhD: security, wonder, love, joy, peace.

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